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San Diego Symphony Tries to Start Anew : Playing the Positive Notes in Orchestra's Recent Troubled Existence

November 27, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The current busy schedule of the San Diego Symphony's musicians belies the traumatic events of the orchestra's recent past.

This week the 81-member orchestra is actually working two schedules: While a 32-member ensemble will perform four of J. S. Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos at a pair of chamber music concerts, most of the musicians are playing "The Nutcracker" with the visiting San Francisco Ballet.

The scene is sharply different from a year ago. Then the players were picketing Symphony Hall, protesting the season's cancellation and their lockout by a debt-burdened management resolved to halt a history of deficit spending.

Management refused to let the musicians work, except on its terms. The musicians refused to give in. There followed a non-season of bitterness and disillusion.

Apparently, all that is now history, the bitterness dissipated in the business of getting on with a new season. Nevertheless, rebuilding the institution poses a major challenge.

"There are so many problems facing us, but they're not insurmountable," Wesley O. Brustad, executive director of the orchestra, said in a recent interview.

The symphony's board is betting on Brustad to make the planned recovery a reality. Hired a year ago to turn the beleaguered orchestra around, Brustad came to San Diego with a reputation for rejuvenating indebted orchestras in Washington State--the Spokane Symphony--and in Los Angeles--the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

Nevertheless, Brustad is faced with a dizzying array of obstacles that include regaining the public trust, eliminating the capital debt, building a larger audience, improving labor relations, ending a constant turnover of top management figures and re-establishing the musical quality of the ensemble.

The No. 1 problem facing the symphony, Brustad believes, is restoring the community's interest and trust in the organization, which hit rock bottom during the last 12 months.

"That takes time," he said.

A key element in restoring trust is to establish a reputation for financial credibility.

"I think we've made marvelous gains in both ticket buyers and donors, certainly far beyond what we had projected at this point."

The symphony has raised more than $2 million in the last 12 months, reducing its $5.5-million debt to $3.4 million.

Brustad is determined to avoid further deficits. To do so, he has slashed costs across the board to reach a $5.7-million budget that is $2 million less than the expenses incurred the last season the orchestra played.

Brustad has based income projections on what the symphony has earned in past seasons.

"We are done with the days of the high-flying rollers here," he said.

Costs couldn't have been cut without the consent of the musicians, who accepted a pay cut by agreeing to a new two-year contract signed in May.

"I think there has been a change in attitude," said Gregory Berton, a bassist and member of the musicians' negotiating committee.

"They are finally understanding that you can't have a first-class orchestra unless the musicians feel appreciated."

Brustad concurs: "There's a whole change in philosophy.

"The players are what we are about. I mean, it's like having a football team, right? You're not going to beat anybody unless you have a good team out there that feels good about themselves."

Artistically, the orchestra is riddled with vacancies--15 in all--including principal positions such as concertmaster. Substitutes are filling in. Auditions will be held in January.

Brustad estimates it may be as long as three years before the orchestra has a new music director. Until then, the orchestra will work with a different visiting conductor every week. (The previous music director, David Atherton, resigned shortly after the orchestra was disbanded earlier this year.)

The hallmark of the new symphony season is conservative programming aimed at building ticket sales. The fare of the 18-week winter series leans heavily toward chestnuts by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms, with a spate of pops concerts featuring Mitch Miller, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey.

To help broaden the symphony's audience base, Brustad has added several new concerts series such as the early evening "cocktail" concerts for young professionals, morning "coffee" concerts to lure diurnal music aficionados, "international" concerts for travel film fanciers and "nickelodeon" concerts for silent-film buffs.

Brustad does not expect the symphony to solve its problems overnight. He has a five-year plan and a 15-year plan.

Although the opening concerts were near sellouts, he refused to speculate what the early attendance figures may mean for the recovering orchestra.

"It's way too early" to make assumptions, he said.

"The proof's going to be in slugging it out every week, and seeing what we can attract."

(Free-lancer Kenneth Herman contributed to this story.)

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